Bread And Hot Cheese
Baltimore doesn’t yet have a real pupuseria, though there’s rumor of a truck somewhere along Eastern Boulevard. What the city has more and more of are great pupusas sold both in Salvadoran restaurants and places where cuisine choices range from Mexico down to Peru. These joints have been gathering for years in Fells Point, and now they’re stretching eastward on Eastern Avenue, from Broadway to Greektown.
A pupusa is basically a stuffed tortilla, or really two tortillas grilled together with stuff—typically pork and cheese— placed in the middle. In El Salvador, which celebrates a national pupusa day on Nov. 13, it’s street food. At the Habanero Grill in Greektown, home of some of the city’s easternmost pupusas, they go on a plate with an accompaniment of curtido, a seasoned slaw of pickled cabbage and carrots. The pork pupusa at Habanero Grill gives the pleasurable molten mouth-feel pleasure of a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon.
Open from 8 a.m. until past midnight, the Habanero Grill, appears always on the verge of either breaking into the city’s bargain-dining hall of fame, or going the way of the chicken-and-waffle joint whose place it took. It attracts both U.S.-born and immigrant patrons, about evenly divided, according to owner Oscar Mendez, who opened the restaurant after working for years at Harborplace’s now-defunct Tex Mex Grill. He puts in 100-hour weeks running his family business and talks with great pride about the homemade food his restaurant serves. “This place is different because we make everything here, and everything is fresh,” Mendez says. “We make the salsa here, everything.”
But it’s the pupusas, made by Mendez’s mother, Gloria, that bring many people in. The pupusa is one of those no-introductions-necessary foods that primes diners for the less easily translatable segments of Latin cuisine—it is, after all, basically bread and hot cheese (in El Salvador quesillo, up here usually mozzarella). Eventually patrons work up to more adventurous fare like the tripe soup with cows’ feet. “All kinds of people come in,” Mendez says. “Different people like different things, and I try to offer many choices. But everybody loves the pupusas.”
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